Swallow your skepticism, vote for Billings!

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You don’t have to like contests, or Outside magazine, to feel proud of our humble burg.

Can I admit that until this afternoon I hadn’t even checked out the whole Outside magazine best-town-in-the-nation thing?

I had seen headlines and photos and mentions of it on Facebook and Twitter, on the Q2 website and in the Gazette, but I hadn’t bothered to really look into it yet. I’m busy, for one thing.

For another, in my Gazette column over the years I took many opportunities to make fun of this or that contest, including several previous Outside contests. As I pointed out every time, these contests are not designed primarily to determine which town is the coolest, or the family-friendliest or the best to retire in, etc.

They were and are designed primarily to drive traffic to the website of Outside magazine, or whatever outfit is sponsoring the contest of the day.

But still… They are often damned fun, and if by some miracle your humble burg makes the final four, as Billings has now done, it’s hard to ignore. I finally checked it out today after receiving an email from the friendly folks at Outside.

They thought it would be a swell idea if were to write a story about the contest, and they even offered to arrange an interview by contacting “Thomas Giordonello at The Rosen Group.” That’s how I’ll know I’ve made it: when people who want to interview me go through a public relations company.

Anyway, I read the press release, which only increased my skepticism about the contest. I learned that the original bracket consisted of 64 towns selected by Outside editors, and that the four finalists were each selected as the “best” of a certain type. Billings was chosen as the best river town, Ludington, Mich., as the best beach town, Jackson, Wyo., as the best mountain town and Seattle as the best culture town.

“River town?” I said to myself. “Billings?”

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Yellowstone River and I daresay I’ve canoed it more times than 95 percent of the people who live here, and I’ve swum in it more times than 98 percent of the people who live here. But that’s the thing. Almost every time I recreate on the Yellowstone, the only other people I see are the people I’m with.

I can think of 12 or 15 canoe trips on which we didn’t see another soul on the water. That’s partly because by the time the Yellowstone flows through Billings, it is mostly a plains river, big and wide without the kind of wild, boulder-dodging runs you see on the Gallatin, the Madison, the Blackfoot or the North Fork of the Flathead.

But in its own way it’s more dangerous than all those rivers because it carries so much water and has such treacherous currents, but also because it carries so many sweepers—enormous uprooted cottonwood trees just waiting to suck in and eat your canoe. And of course the Yellowstone is notorious for riprap—concrete, rebar, chunks of rock, old car bodies and so on—which besides being ugly can cause some real trouble if you get thrown into them on a sharp bend in the river.

So yeah, we’re a river town, but our river is mostly underused, except by those who walk alongside it in our fine river parks. It’s just hard to think of Billings as a river town in the sense of how we think of Missoula, Great Falls and even Miles City as river towns.

But then I finally went to the Outside website (see link in first paragraph). And there I saw, in just one sentence, all I needed to know: “We looked for places with great access to trails and public lands, thriving restaurants and neighborhoods, and, of course, a good beer scene—all while excluding the winners and runners-up from the past three years to make room for hidden gems, underdogs, and towns on the rise.”

Aha! Great access to trails and public lands? Check! Thriving restaurants? Double check! Thriving neighborhoods? Oh, hell yes! Good beer scene? Checkmate!

If those are the criteria, and if past winners were eliminated from the outset, then suddenly it made perfect sense that Billings reached the final four, and there’s no reason why Billings could not proudly wear the first-place crown.

We are a hidden gem—particularly well hidden from all those silly, pitiable folks in Western Montana who’ve never bothered to venture east of Bozeman. And though Billings is the biggest city in the state, there’s no question it is an underdog. How many Outside readers go to bed every night dreaming of moving to Bozeman or Missoula and have never even heard of Billings? This is our big chance.

Lastly, on the rise? Well, I suppose we are, given things like this Outside contest.

So yeah, it’s just a contest, and it’s just a ploy to make more money for Outside magazine and its public relations consultants. But Billings deserves to win it, damn it. So do your civic duty and vote.

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